Literary Criticism

The keystone to McLuhan’s style is the brilliantly illuminating sentence; for whereas most essayists organize their ideas into measured and coherently structured paragraphs, McLuhan offers a series of jerky sentences that relate to each other in diverse ways, that are split into paragraphs nearly at random and that attain widely varying degrees of velocity and insight.

The book’s title [The Medium Is the Message] is itself an example of McLuhan’s essentially Joycean technique of discovering insights in the process of playing with English language. Whereas his primary aphorism was once “the medium is the message,” now McLuhan puns the last word into “massage” and finds another dimension of his original thesis—that the medium itself affects as much as the content, especially as it metaphorically massages our senses.

–”Marshall McLuhan” (1967)

What we call “absurd literature” embodies a very specific literary convention: a series of absurd—that is, nonsensical or ridiculous—events that suggest the ultimate absurdity, or meaninglessness, of human existence. At the end of Eugene Ionesco’s The Chairs, a particularly neat model of the convention, a hired lecturer addresses a nonexistent audience in an indecipherable tongue. This is the absurd surface. Since the lecturer’s message is supposed to represent the final wisdom of a ninety-five-year-old couple, the meaningless message becomes an effective symbol for metaphysical void.

The double paradox is that even anti-art inevitably reveals the influence of previous arts, as well as creates esthetic examples that shape future art. Perhaps because the ideas informing Dada were in essence quite simple, although original and unfamiliar to both art history and most artists, its impact upon functioning creative intelligences was liable to be both quicker and more subliminal than the complex thought of, say, Wittgenstein’s philosophy or contemporary physics; thus, I suspect that the Dada spirit has probably infiltrated all contemporary minds whose sensibility were susceptible, slipping, for instance, into the fiction of writers only dimly aware of the original work.

On second thought, however, this particular formulation of unfettered possibility [“there really exist no limits upon the kinds of fiction that can be put between two covers”] now strikes me as needlessly conservative, if not compromised, in one crucial respect; for if limits exist not to be respected but exceeded, why should fictions, even those created out of words, necessarily be printed on paper of uniform size and bound between covers? And why should a writer piously accept the convention that all his words be printed in type of the same size and style and then laid in evenly measured and modulated gray lines? Why should a work of imagination necessarily have a discernible beginning and an equally definite end? Why could not a narrative be framed on a continuous sheet of paper wound, say, between two rollers printed not perpendicularly, like the Torah, but in lines parallel to the spindles’ shafts? Could not a writer create a room full of words cunningly chosen, expressively designed, resonantly arranged, and artfully draped, that would evoke the coherence of both environmental art and literature? (Maybe such an environmental fiction could be mass-produced or “published” on screens that the purchasing “reader” could then circulate to his taste around his own home.)

—“Dada & the Future of Literature” (1968)

Literary criticism has historically achieved more influence, if not more conceptual progress, than, say, criticism of painting or music, in part because the possibility of printed quotations historically provided a comparatively more effective way of presenting evidence; yet critical insights rarely have truly scientific status, in spite of their inevitable subsequent consideration by others in the trade.

The Maturity of American Thought (c. 1980, 2006)

Once the contract was in hand, I went to Puerto Rico with a large suitcase full of books, reading them all day at the beach and then making notes toward an introduction in the evening; and before I let myself go home, I hit upon a theme that would organize not only my opening essay but also the entire book (and incidentally give it a title). Like all good critical ideas, this theme gave the project an intelligence that literally exceeds my own. Put simply, my theme was to regard American poetry in the post-WWII period as a series of reactions to the rather formal and restrictive T. S. Eliot establishment of 1945, and the cumulative result of all these reactions was a new pluralism in which a variety of poetic styles was feasible. My title was Possibilities of Poetry.

—“On Anthologies” (1999)

It is my considered opinion (and the point of my selection [The Yale Gertrude Stein, 1980]) that if you take the conventional view—that she wrote two charming books, Three Lives and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, plus a lot of incomprehensible crap—then Stein is a minor writer. However, if you examine this alleged “incomprehensible crap” closely, you will discover that Stein was a supremely experimental writer, working in a variety of unprecedented ways. Indeed, she was perhaps the single most inventive writer in the history of American letters.

—“On Anthologies” (1999)

By “Visual Literature” I mean works with language, conceived with reference to the traditions of literature, that are primarily visual in their organization and means of enhancement.

—“On Anthologies” (1999)

We are coming to recognize visual literature as a distinct genre whose measure is simply the visual enhancement of language. . . . Whereas visual poetry is language enhanced primarily by design, visual fiction would be images in sequences that depend upon changing pictures for narrative development.

—“Three Visual Litterateurs” (1992)